Guest Commentary

Low literacy among adults in Kansas City is more common than you think

In the modern world, literacy doesn’t only involve reading skills — it also includes math and digital skills. Literacy KC offers services to help adults in all those areas.
In the modern world, literacy doesn’t only involve reading skills — it also includes math and digital skills. Literacy KC offers services to help adults in all those areas.

A topic that seems to go largely unnoticed and therefore unaddressed is low literacy rates among adults. With an estimated 225,000 adults in the Kansas City metro area labeled as functionally illiterate, or reading below a fifth-grade level, it is important that the community work together to reach out and help these individuals.

Adult literacy is one of those issues that many people will learn about and say, “Oh my, I had no idea this was an issue in my community.” However, it is highly likely that you know someone who is struggling with some form of low literacy; you just may not realize it.

It is such a complex issue because it is a hidden issue for many people. It can be challenging to identify low literacy because of the associated stigma that causes many of these individuals to be ashamed and therefore not make it known that they need help. Many literate adults don’t naturally look out for illiteracy within the adult community, as they likely learned to read and write at a young age and take these skills for granted. An important part of improving adult literacy rates is increasing awareness that illiteracy exists in the first place.

Local organizations like Literacy KC are working to improve the reading, writing, math and digital skills of adults in the Kansas City metro area who may be struggling. The definition of adult literacy today is different from what it was 30 years ago when Literacy KC began. What originally primarily meant the ability to read and write has expanded to include increased focus on math skills, health and financial literacy, and digital skills. The primary reason for these changes involves the advancements in the skills needed to be a fully integrated member of society.

Literacy KC offers valuable services to those who need them. How is a low-literate parent supposed to give their child the proper dosage of medication if they are unable to read the prescription information? How can an adult apply to a job that only offers an application online if they don’t have the digital skills to use a computer?

Literacy KC is revolutionizing the way adult literacy education is delivered. Qualified instructors lead classes supported by trained volunteer tutors. Classes cover relevant, level-appropriate curriculum and are student-centered, as instructors and tutors work to help them meet their academic and personal goals. Literacy KC has extended class offerings beyond its office, expanding to partner sites that spread across the Kansas City metro area to meet students where they are.

Key collaborative partnerships with the Kansas City Public Library and Mid-Continent Public Library systems have allowed the launch of Career Online High School, a program that allows students to earn an accredited high school diploma online. Literacy KC has a computer lab on site that is open to the public during business hours and used for digital skills instruction. Google Fiber and the Nonprofit Technology Network have teamed up to install a full-time digital inclusion fellow at Literacy KC whose entire focus is to increase digital skills training into all aspects of the programming.

The steady improvement of services together with programs that embrace a community literacy approach has helped to expand the reach of Literacy KC to a population that needs help. The organization has positioned itself as a leader in adult education services and created a community safe space for those needing to improve their skills. With increased community involvement and support, we can work toward a future where there is literacy for all.

Kevin Derohanian is a Kansas City resident and the marketing and communications coordinator at Literacy KC.